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You Dirty Rat

By Richard Sheaff

Cagney actually never spoke that line famously attributed to him, but no matter. Millions of others have said it. Though rats are said to actually make very nice pets, most people find them repulsive. Mankind has fought a losing bat with the rat populations of the world since Time immemorial. Much human ingenuity over the centuries has been applied to traps and poisons to beat back the clever and highly adaptable rodents.

Rats and mice can be an interesting collecting topic, as images of them have long been ubiquitous in American culture . . . dressed up and and acting human-like, as targets for pesticides and traps, as cartoon characters, as cute critters on greeting cards.

The Chinese have long been belittled by Westerners as “rat-eaters” and “dog-eaters”. Which, in fact, some are. Rodents and canines are consumed by humans in various parts of Asia, where protein is where you can find it. Rodents prepared there generally have fed off rice, not human garbage. In the USA, a widespread animosity toward immigrant Chinese developed in the mid- to late-1880s, after their critical role in our gold rush and railroad building days had been completed. The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by Chester Arthur in 1882, mandated severe restrictions on any further Chinese immigration. Many, many examples of Victorian rancor toward Chinese in this country can be found. The expression “They (the Chinese) must go” was a phrase commonly encountered, here used to refer both to rats and to the Chinese . . .

Lyme, New Hampshire silkscreen artist Kate Holman turned cavorting rodents into a light-hearted greeting card (1980s) . . .